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I taught English in Japanese public junior and senior high schools for three years, and my experiences in the classroom taught me this: word-for-word translation doesn’t work. The perfect example comes from one of the first lessons I led. The lesson about vocabulary associated with family: father, mother, sister, brother, etc.  As I was “introducing” my family to a room full of 12-year-old students, I put a photo of my mother on the screen.

“This is my mother. Her name is Gayl,” I said.

Giggles erupted in the front row. Weird, I thought…I didn’t think I’d made a joke.

I continued with the lesson, introducing the rest of my family. At the end of class, I went through the full introduction for review. Again, giggles.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

Convincing a Japanese student to stand out from their classmates can be difficult, but finally, I convinced one boy to tell me what was funny.

“Your mother’s name…Gayl. In Japanese it means…” he opened up his dictionary.

He pointed to a word: throw up. The way I was pronouncing my mother’s name somehow sounded like a similar word in Japanese that meant vomit. I joined them in their laughter. And from then on…I only referred to my mother as Mom.

The word-for-word translation clearly didn’t work in my bilingual classroom, and it won’t work for your bilingual (or multilingual) eLearning course.

If you’re assigned a project that requires translation into multiple languages, here are three tips to ensure you don’t end up unintentionally teaching people the word for vomit.

Include bilingual requirements in your needs analysis

Ideally, you should know from day one if your course will be delivered in more than one language; cover the question as part of your needs analysis process. If you have language requirements identified up front, you’re able to design appropriately. For example, you can select universal images rather than use English-based graphics. Or if you know you’ll be offering the course in Japanese, you can plan for on-screen text that works in both vertical and horizontal formats. It’s much easier and more efficient if you have these design parameters in mind from the beginning, rather than after the course has been finished.

Determine if it will be wholly or partially bilingual content

Once you know the content will be delivered in more than one language, determine if everything will be translated or if you’ll only be translating on-screen text, navigation menus, audio, video or all of the above. That helps not only with budget requirements but also helps you identify how much additional time might be required to allow learners to process the content if not everything is translated. (Ideally, you will translate all of the content, but if budget issues arise, this becomes a consideration.)

Hire a native-level translator

Finally, Google translate is a great solution if you need a quick, informal translation of some text. But if you’re creating an entire course, hire a translator who has native-level proficiency in speaking and writing the language. You want learners to appreciate your course, regardless of the language in which they receive the information. Every language has nuances that can make or break the effectiveness of your course. Don’t wait for learners to inform you that you’ve made a blunder. When that happens, the credibility of the course suffers.

Honestly, language is a tricky thing, and you may not be able to avoid every possible issue (see above story related to my vocabulary blunder). But, if you’re creating content that will be translated into multiple languages to support bilingual eLearning, you and your learners will benefit if you’re proactive, understand the parameters, and work with a qualified translator.

LizSheffieldBioLiz Sheffield is a freelance writer with a background in training and development. She specializes in writing about everything related to the human side of business. You can contact her via LinkedIn or Twitter.

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